20 June 2020

Confusion about goals

Some otherwise sensible commentators have been remarking that it's clearly a mistake for statues of US Grant to be toppled.

Well, no, it really isn't.

Much like Obama, Grant is an example of a US President with a blameless personal life, relatively humble beginnings, and significant accomplishments.

What that view—Grant commanded the armies that broke the Confederacy! what do you want?—misses is that people want systemic change.

This is the difference between wanting a good king and wanting no king at all. 

So, sure, Grant did devise and enact the strategy to break the Confederacy; Grant as president did break the Klan.  But Grant was also president of a nation inextricably involved in white supremacy, which means an economy built on looting which in turn means conquest to provide opportunity for looting.  There is not getting away from it; you can't be president and not do terrible things.  This applies to the truly bad people (Wilson, for example) and the generally decent people (FDR) and even the few actually-humble-beginnings-arguably-great (Lincoln, Grant, Truman) examples.

If you want no king; if you want an economy built on something other than loot; if you want a movement sufficiently powerful to guarantee Jeff Bezos dies poor [1], you certainly do topple Grant's statues along with every other president.  If it's time for ethnogenesis and justice, you can't keep your aspirations of just kings.

[1] if you don't have that much power you can't get rid of extractive capitalism.


JReynolds said...

I've been making my way through Chernow's recent biography of Grant. Chernow is zipping through the ACW - presumably he's got things to say about what Grant did as president, as well as his post-presidential career.

From what I've read in that bio (and others), I'd have to say that Grant was for the most part a decent guy[1] who had a few problematic bits - for some values of problematic including minor levels of antisemitism.

As for statues (of Grant, Columbus, Jefferson Davis), they aren't history - they're propaganda, for god's sake.


[1] I almost wrote "Grant was generally a decent guy", but I disdain plays on words. Heh.

Graydon said...

Have not read Chernow, though I have heard complimentary things about it.

And, yeah Grant was for the most part decent by every surviving record we have. The most difficulty his contemporaries had with him (aside from losing) was trying to devise a narrative where this apparently entirely ordinary man did that.

(I've never understood why there hasn't been an effort to claim Grant as somewhere on the autistic spectrum.)

And yes, of course statues are propaganda. I can't imagine anyone knowing anything about the history of equestrian statues and not realising that, for example.

It's still a question of the system the propaganda is for; the good kings are still kings.

JReynolds said...

To add to my previous comment re: statues as propaganda, have a look at this article that describes why there is a statue of Lincoln in an Edinburgh cemetery. This is Lincoln the Emancipator, with a formerly-enslaved person holding up his hand in gratitude at the base of the statue.

The fact that a lot of Scotsmen went to the USA to fight for the Union prompted the statue to be erected in 1893.

Now, Lincoln is a great hero of mine. He was born to a family in the direst poverty. Through the engine of his ambition, he first rose to prosperous middle class as a self-taught lawyer, and then to the presidency. He was exactly the right man at the right place at the right time, and the USA was incredibly fortunate to have had him. (Imagine if Frémont had been elected on the Republican ticket in 1856 - you would have almost certainly have had southern secession, but with an incompetent boob in the White House).

However, Lincoln was no saint, as the statue implicitly suggests. He was a successful politician, with all that that implies regarding unsavoury deals having to be made in order to achieve his larger goals.

Which brings us back to propaganda. The statue shows mighty whitey freeing the slaves. The figure representing all enslaved people is explicitly beneath Lincoln, who isn't even looking at them. It ignores the fact that many of the slaves freed themselves by crossing to Union lines as the Federal army moved south, plus many of the other ways enslaved people became free.

Well, here I am nattering on about two former US Presidents and ignoring the wider points you're making about an economy based on looting and coercion. Presidents, bad and good, are for a time at the apex of power and privilege of their society, able to order thousands to their deaths in the defense of the state, and its right to loot.

Graydon said...


Don't disagree with any of your observations above.

The tricky bit is to remember the systemic reasons why Lincoln had the opportunity to split those fence rails. That's not in any of the stories.

JReynolds said...

Hi Graydon,

Did you by any chance have a relative who worked for the old Waterloo Trust and Savings Company in the late sixties? My dad worked with someone who shared your name back then. However, unless you're in your eighties, it probably wasn't you.

Graydon said...

+JReynolds I did not.